Best Computer for 1st Year

What are the most popular options college students choose in terms of computers? For lightweight use in mainly writing and note-taking. Are laptops that convert to tablets popular?

Thank you!

Just bought MacBook Pro. Kid had one that had note taking capabilities and didn’t like that feature. As an instructor, I feel like nothing beats writing in a spiral notebook or taking notes directed on printed PowerPoint slides and this is what I see my college students doing. But I can see how writing on slides on the screen might be useful.

Chromebooks are used by a lot of students, come in different sizes and are generally affordable (as opposed to Mac’s). We also like the Acer Aspire PC which is very affordable.

1 Like

My standard advice is a convertible/2-in-1 laptop with an i7, 16GB RAM and at least 256GB, preferably 512GB, SSD. I’m sure Mac has an equivalent.

Other majors may differ, but a Chromebook won’t work for the modeling apps used in Engineering. A Mac is a challenge periodically.

Machines like this are available for $1K. Additional features - 4K displays, discrete graphics, skinny bezels, etc., are personal preference, at a higher cost, but rarely needed for school work.

My D got through 4 years of Purdue Engineering with the above, a Dell Inspiron (not $$Optiplex) with no issues.

Only a few specialized majors (Computer Graphics, not regular CS) can have extreme requirements.
Art/Graphic Design may have the same.

I always recommend the full 4 year, on-site, next day service plan. Yes, it’s pricey. But when my D dropped her laptop, she had a new bottom shell, keyboard, daughterboard, and 2 ports, installed at home, in 3 days. A roommate who dropped hers waited 3 weeks for repair by mail. Not what you want in the middle of college.

(EDIT: the above price was for a 14”. I think 14 or 15 is the best size/weight tradeoff, but that’s personal preference and a 17” screen would be at a higher price).


Nearly every school I’ve seen post recommended models and specs for computers that will handle whatever your student will need.

Here’s a sample site. Students - Computing Services - Office of the CIO - Carnegie Mellon University

Also be aware that many schools have dedicated purchasing sites or links that will provide discounts to students.

1 Like

The OP specified “lightweight use in mainly writing and note-taking”. Not sure if the reference was to light weight or light use though.

If our OP were a CS, Engineering, Film, or Design major, I would recommend the specifications that RichInPitt mentioned. For my humanities major daughter, I purchased an i5 (I think) 8GB RAM, 256 GB storage MacBook Air to replace a similar old MacBook Pro. Now I would choose the Air with 8-core GPU and M1 chip. It is fast, lightweight, and a great battery economizer. I am a new owner and very impressed. Our past MacBooks have each lasted 5 to 8 years while my old Dell laptops would last 2 to 3 years.

I’d steer clear of laptop/tablet combos and tend toward a standard laptop. I’ve not heard great things from people that have tried using tablets as a laptop. You can get a reasonable laptop for $500 or less that should be able to do everything required in college.


The Acer was around $350 and ranks at the top on many sites for laptop under $500. Chromebooks vary but the top ranked Asus I had was about $300.

Mac’s were pricey for us and don’t seem to last any longer. My music kid does have a Mac and needs it for both music and photography/video work.

A practical consideration is the size of the screen; some 15-inch screens are large enough to have two full text pages displayed side-by-side in decently-sized fonts, which is a very convenient for reading text books and editing.

Perhaps consider a second bigger ( > 19 inch ?) monitor as well, to help with easing computer eye strain. My son really likes the upgrade to a 15-inch from a 13-inch, and the second monitor has been very useful for hours-long reading and writing.

The truth is…there’s no “best.” Go light.

If your student is an engineer and needs to do heavy computer lifting, it’s best done on a desktop with big screen real estate or can be handled remotely anyway.

The notion that Macs struggle is silly. My son has a MS in ME. He started on Windows, but his whole company uses Macs. They design in NX. Macs are fine for Matlab and the programming he does.

Every laptop that isn’t a Solidworks certified workstation will struggle with complex 3D renders. Don’t pound nails with a screwdriver and you’ll be fine.

Get what you like and don’t break the bank or get a tank.

Weight/size may be important because students carry their computers around , to class, to coffee shops and so on. For the price of a Mac a student could get a smaller lighter computer AND a 15 inch for home.

For that purpose, I’d consider either a 2-in-1 or an iPad with Apple Pencil. Because of COVID and remote learning, my son’s college loaned every student who wanted it an iPad with Apple Pencil last year, he found the stylus to be much more useful than he originally thought. If you don’t want a separate tablet with stylus, then I’d seriously consider a 2-in-1.


My D used an iPad Pro with stylus/Apple Pencil for her senior year. She purchased it with her summer earnings with the goal of going “paperless” without losing the ability to hand write notes, which she prefers to typing. It worked well for her so she will take that to college classes. She has a MacBook Air (13 inch, I believe) as well. She expects that will stay in her dorm but will see what works best once she is there. She is not in engineering or a major that will require that level of processing power so she is taking what she already has.


A laptop with a hinge that can rotate 360 degrees, and a touchscreen, is typically the definition of a laptop/tablet combination. The only difference from a “standard laptop” is the type of hinge. I would agree that buying a tablet and trying to use it as a full laptop is not recommended, but I wouldn’t call that a laptop/tablet.

Fwiw, my D just graduated from a T10 engineering school. She never had issues with computing power and classmates absolutely had software packages that did not run on MacOS. They didn’t find the issue they faced to be silly.

I suggest following the guidance of those who actually run the program

Note 2: We have recently downgraded MacOS to “not recommended for use” due to high levels of technical expertise needed to run Windows software.

Check with your specific school and program. As the above Engineering and Computer Graphics recommendations illustrate, it varies from school to school and even program to program.

Why would anybody use two computers when you can just buy a nice monitor for home?

Well I like to move my 15 inch around, for movies in bed for instance. My kid had a small computer (11"?) to take to school and a 15" for home, but still wanted to move the 15" around.

Many people would do fine with one smaller 11" or 13". She has back issues and can only take the small one to school.

Also monitors require furniture to put them on!

The problem with many computers is moving files from one to another. That’s why I have only one laptop. It’s 15" right now, but I’ll move back to 13" once Apple release their new MBP with the ARM chip.

Throughout high school my kids had a PC where the hinge on the screen allowed it to function as a tablet. The hinge really loosened up so that the screen could barely sit up by itself when used as a regular PC. Although maybe the hinge could have been tightened…. They didn’t want that feature again.